The General Counter

Very early into my trip to Paris with my study abroad program, we still needed to fixate our bodies into the proper time zone when we went to Shakespeare & Co, the well known bookstore located in Paris’ 4th arrondissement. Rather than follow my classmates into the narrow, book shelved hallways, I meandered outside for a moment. In front of one of the windows of the façade were two young adults, sipping coffee and talking politely with each other. I stood beside a fountain, stealthily pulling out my Polaroid from my bag and preparing The Doodle Project in one hand so I could try my first attempt at asking a Parisian for their doodle. I approached them, in French.

“Bonjour!” I said as I walked up to the boy and girl sitting on a bench, crouching low so I would seem less intimidating.

“Hello?”

I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that they were from Britain, but it was almost a letdown knowing that my first doodles in Paris would be English ones. No matter, they were interested and were excited to participate after I explained what it was that I was doing.

“Are you two on vacation?” I asked them after I took their photo and set up their page for doodling.

“Well, not exactly,” Peter said to me with his fresh-out-of-bed tone, which wasn’t far off from his outward appearance. “We work here.”

Shakespeare & Co. has a program where students living in England can study in Paris through their university while working at the bookstore.

“It’s not a bad gig,” said Peter.

Peter and Flora, who was quiet but positive, shared the page equally. Peter started by asking me if I was into minimalism as he began to sketch Notre Dame, the cathedral within eyeshot of the bookstore. Flora began to draw the fat cat that lives inside of the store.

“What’s a book that you hate?” Flora asked Peter. Flora answered for herself, saying, “Oh. ‘Eat Pray Love’. That’s a rubbish book.” She drew the fat cat reading Eat Pray Love, proclaiming, “This is rubbish.”

Peterflora

They finished their page, and I thought it was a great page and took back any anxieties I had about not having the first page be French[1]. I was happy. I thanked them.

“Oh,” I started as I began packing up my belongings, “by the way, where do ya’ll like to drink around here?”

They told me they like to hang out in the 5th arrondissement. Peter took my journal and wrote down two bar names. “This one is pretty hip,” he said, pointing to a bar he wrote down: Le Comptoir Général. I thanked them both for the advice, and returned to the group inside the narrow store.

After buying a few books, finding 20€ on the ground and losing track of everyone, I ran to Notre Dame, scuttled through the cathedral hastily as it was too crowded for my weak mind and empty stomach, and returned to the frenzy outside. How is it that in this mass of tourists that I would find none other than my good friend from New Orleans, Remi! What a small world we live in, and what one may call a minor chance to some could end up being a miraculous set of circumstances for others. Remi and I have been friends for a while; the miracle of us having been in Paris at the same time (him on vacation, I for school,) was a pleasant, distant idea when we were both presented with the dates for our time abroad. There was little preparation on both of our halves as we respectively took our trips to France, and we only began correspondence after both being acclimated, two days in. We missed the chance to meet up previously, and hadn’t really planned on much else after that. This truly was chance.

“Man, listen to this; we are going out tonight, alright? My dad did some research and found this one bar that he thinks I ought to go to, we have to go. Tonight!” I agreed, and we made plans for Remi to email me the address. That night, I set out on the metro to find 80 quai de Jemmapes.

I got to the 5th arrondissement long before Remi and I had planned to meet; I walked along the Canal Saint Martin to find the bar in question. Only having asked for directions once, I kept scanning quai de Jemmapes for any 80’s, looking for some sort of sign of the bar that Remi suggested. I couldn’t see anything other than a doorway between 78 and 82 quai de Jemmapes, leading to an alleyway with manicured bushes and unassuming sidewalk. Uneasily, I walked down the path that I guessed must have been to a bar. What luck: Le Comptoir Général was at the end of the path.

A tall, dark skinned man dressed in a well fitting brown and red suit stood at the entrance, greeting with “bonsoir” as I walked in. The interior was similar to the man’s outfit; warm, brown, red, dark but not negative. Afro-electro beats were playing while I walked down the carpeted hallway, the walls lined with photos of African political figures and French historic documents. Through this hallway was another room, the size of a gymnasium, sans basketball hoops or gym-floor guidelines. Instead, memorabilia from the 60’s to the 80’s and plants were the fixtures enclosing the space. Mismatched couches and glass tables supported by small stands were strewn along the sides, as were cabinets with vintage cameras, TV’s playing black and white stock footage and old African artwork. It was an accepting mismatching of African and French style. I felt uncomfortable, only knowing that everyone here was speaking French, and that this place was too cool to have any “willing” English speakers. Moreover, it was too cool for me. How did Remi’s father find this place? How did those two Brits stumble down this alley? Am I not supposed to be here?

I ordered a Rum Punch from the bar to amend my worries (very salty, very strong, but for 7€ it was worth the cost) and stood around awkwardly waiting for Remi. He came in running, apologizing for being late.

“I had no idea how to get here. Everything is in French, I don’t know a lick of French, man, and I mean that! Do you see this place? I have no idea how my dad found this place!”

We marveled at the seeming cultural appropriation. We agreed that it wasn’t appropriation, as it was not only a mixed crowd, but as we found out later, it was a museum; an artist’s collection of African-European historic artifacts. Remi was giddy being in a foreign country.

“So here’s what’s up: I’m meeting up with someone from St. Louis here in a little bit, she’s friends with my family since I was a kid, you know? So we should go to another bar to wait,” he said, pointing both of his hands into space to represent another bar, “and come back here after, when she’s ready,” again pointing to another part of space.

I concurred. I had no other plans, and I wanted more doodles. We did a large arc down quai de Jemmapes, over the canal’s bridge and down to one of the narrowing alleys. We talked about graphic design, the geometric nature of Parisian streets and the adjacent graffiti that lined them. Walking down a widening alley, we came across an open space where a building might have once stood. Along the wall where the building would have been there was graffiti, and it wasn’t lousy; 40 feet tall. An artist was working on a large tag when I looked at Remi.

“You have to do it,” he said, knowing I wanted to get a doodle.

Again, I pulled out my project, and approached the man, spraying with intent. “Bonjour, parlez anglais, possible?”

“Yes. I do. What do you want?” he replied with a thick accent. He wasn’t high strung, he was only lightly manic and clearly in the middle of something. I asked him if he would be interested in doodling. He said, “Yes. But don’t get my face. And quick.”

I followed his orders as he was willing to follow mine. Remi stood far back as I took his photo quickly[2] and let the graffiti artist find a safe stopping point. He took the notebook and demanded for a black sharpie. I quickly pulled one out. While he was drawing his tag, one of his friends yelled something at him, which I could not pick up, but if I could imagine what it was, I’m sure it was somewhere along the lines of calling him a name for talking with me. No matter. He filled in the graffiti and handed it back to me.

“Merci,” I said, nodding to him.

“Yeah.”

yuze

Remi had a smirk as we regrouped at a bar further down the road. Remi began to explain his uneasiness about not knowing French and looking out of place. I mentioned that it didn’t help that he was wearing a rain coat, and that we have no sense of fashion anyway. “Hey man, I don’t know what you’re all about, but rain coats are in.

After a beer we returned to Le Comptoir to meet up with Remi’s friend, Jai. Once again, inside Le Comptoir, we stuck out like sore thumbs; the French really do have impeccable style. We looked like bums compared to the well dressed hip youth, who could have been talking about art or politics or any innumerable wondrous ideas that we couldn’t be a part of. If a trip to Le Comptoir Général is of any interest to you, being fluent in French is a requirement. Too much is left to the wayside if the language barrier is too thick.

1970’s R&B was playing in the bar when Jai walked in, excited to see Remi. They exchanged an awkward bise, as Jai and Remi both seemed to be interested in acting as French as possible (try as they might, they wern’t.) This may have been Remi’s first time performing la bise.

We began to talk, but no tables were available inside the bar. Remi tried to explain to her what The Doodle Project was, and I said it was no matter. Now wasn’t the time or place to talk about it. We all recognized that we were standing in the middle of the bar, first of all where no one was standing, and second of all there were no tables or couches or bar stools to sit on. A walk along the Canal Saint Martin was in order.

Jai told us how she had been teaching English at a school in Paris for the past two years.

“You know what? As it turns out, you don’t need to know a lot of French to live here,” she began.

Remi’s eyes lit up. “For real?”

“Absolutely. I swear, I don’t know any French. I know, what, maybe two or three full sentences? And a bunch of other phrases! Everyone wants to speak English with you! Or at least, if you try to speak French with them and are bad at it, they’ll want to speak English with you. Really, the only people that don’t know any English are the older generations, and that’s only a few people that you really interact with.”

We shared stories along the canal. We talked about St. Louis and New Orleans (Remi was convinced later on that he had convinced Jai to move to New Orleans after she finished in Paris.) There was a pause for a moment, and Jai said she knows of a show going on nearby at a club. I looked at Remi, who again showed only joy knowing that he was about to experience a real French club.

Favela Chic is much like any club that you could find in New York: stylish, modern design, seemingly average, as well as fairly priced. A Prince cover band was jamming their hearts out as best as they could when we walked in. Hungry, as usual, I walked up to the kitchen counter and got the cook’s attention.

He looked at me for a moment. “Bonsoir?”

“Bonsoir. Je voudrais le cheesy tacos?”

Again, he looked confused. “Puis demandez au serveur?” he said as he pointed with a spatula to a man standing next to me.

My eyes got wide and I was embarrassed. I apologized and said I don’t speak French very well. He said it was fine. Lesson learned: when ordering food at bars in France, be sure to ask the waiter for a menu, do not assume that anywhere else is New Orleans and you can walk up to the kitchen counter to order. A very kind chef who prepared my tacos saw the interaction and saw it as a moment to practice her English.

“They will be two minute!” she claimed, giddily.

The music was fine and the tacos were good. Don’t expect much of the bar music to compare to American bar music. In my opinion, it doesn’t compare. The quality of musicians in America versus France is unrivaled. I didn’t let my opinions get in the way of a good time, however. We enjoyed it for what it was worth and left feeling pleasant.

Through no fault of my own, I ended up getting us lost as we looked for a way back to the Metro. I was the only one out of the three of us that knew any French after all, so while we were walking back they assumed I knew what I was doing. I didn’t. We found the Metro after using precious roaming data.

Remi and Jai exchanged bise again, seemingly as awkward as before as we headed towards our line, she to hers. She turned to me and we exchanged bise as well, not my first time exchanging bise, but my first time doing it in France. It felt right. Remi and I hopped on the subway.

“What I would give to know French,” Remi said as we sat down. “Man, I didn’t know you knew that much French!”

“I’m surprised myself,” I said, pulling out my camera and snapping a quick photo of Remi. “You look pretty French I think.”

That pleased Remi. He promised he would start learning French through Rosetta Stone, for the next time he came back to Paris. I would join too, I think. I was proud to have my French because after all these years of thinking, “It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it,” finally came true.

 

Remi1

[1] What was interesting to note was how their doodles were based off of their environment: often times throughout The Doodle Project I’ve found that people will draw environmental doodles, as in a doodle based off of where they are at that point in time. Not only had Flora drawn the cat that lives inside Shakespeare & Co., but Peter had drawn Notre Dame.

[2] I was very proud of this photo, the colors came out quite well as the chemical formula for this brand of film doesn’t often work well with blues.

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